I decided to make this Eurotrash week, which means that I’ve eaten relatively unremarkable food so far–nobody would try to argue that German or Belgian food is likely to be as surprising as, say, Barbadian leadpipe or Liberian palm butter. But the bathrooms in the German and Belgian places were surprisingly intimate–just the way I like it.
A few nights ago, I herded a fleet of friends into BXL Cafe, a Belgian restaurant in the theater district. The place is known for two things: a great selection of Belgian beers and a $20 all-you-can eat mussels and frites special on Sunday and Monday nights. It even comes with a Stella Artois. You can’t beat that deal in that part of NYC–unless, of course, you hate mussels and frites.
Before we headed over there, I googled “national dish of Belgium,” and found a bunch of websites that cited completely different national dishes. Only one of those dishes, carbonnades flammades, was available at BXL. The dish consists of beef stewed in brown ale, served with a side of frites. Sounds kind of intriguing, right?
Too bad it sucked. (I should have been wary when I ordered “carbonnades flamandes,” and the waitress said, “oh, you mean the beef stew?” in response.) Imagine six large cubes of pot roast with an unappetizing, nondescript brown gravy and French fries. If the gravy didn’t have a few dates in it to break up the brown, stringy pot-roast monotony, the dish would have been a mild disaster. I should have ordered the mussels–my friends were all thrilled with theirs.
The bathroom was more interesting than the beef stew. Maybe this is the wickedly strong Belgian beer talking, but I felt really weird when I peed in BXL Cafe. It took me a minute to realize that only a few inches separated the urinal from the sink–it was a little bit awkward, and kind of gross, if you think about it.
The next day, I discovered a similar bathroom layout at the Upper East Side’s legendary Heidelberg Restaurant. The sink, urinals, and trash can were all disturbingly close together, which would be really awkward if you were in that bathroom with other men (men’s bathroom motto: death before eye contact). And the lights in the bathroom were incredibly bright, which was a little bit odd, considering that the restaurant itself barely has any natural light, and feels like an upscale medieval cave.
Oh yeah, Heidelberg also has German food and beer and stuff. My buddy asked our waiter for recommendations, and the waiter responded with an enthusiastic, “Everything! Everything’s good! Get anything you want, it’s all great!”
So my friend tried to order the sauerbraten sandwich. The very same waiter intervened: “Naw, you don’t want that. Get the sauerbraten with potato dumplings instead.” Hilarious.
I wanted to order something that sounded deeply German, so I ordered the schweinebraten, which is very fun to say
after you’ve had a few S(ch)paten lagers. Both of our meals were very precise and conservative–gently rounded cuts of meat in a careful blanket of gravy, immaculately-arranged potatoes or potato dumplings, and a neat little mound of cabbage or sauerkraut. It all felt very well-behaved.
Frankly, the place is absolutely hysterical, in a very well-behaved sort of way. The other patrons were all elderly Germanic types, one of whom politely berated us for having our cell phones on the table during a meal: “you know, dat izz very bad for ze digestion.” The staff and owners also seemed like good, friendly, down-to-earth people, and that counts for something. None of them wore anything unusual, but we could tell from the look in their eyes that they sometimes love to wear lederhosen on a Tuesday afternoon.
So yeah, there’s a reason that Heidelberg is a landmark. The food was a little bit too reserved for my taste, but they deserve some credit for execution, friendliness, and the imminent threat of lederhosen.
1648 2nd Avenue @ 86th
Subway: 86th Ave. (4, 5, 6 trains)
125 West 43rd Street
Subway: Times Square or Bryant Park (any train you want)